Woodcarver Ezine
Back Issues
Carvers' Companion Gateway

Scrollsaw Relief Carving

By Steve Baldwin

Burleson, TX



The woodworking style I have evolved for myself as a hobby and part-time business includes about one part scroll sawing and 2-3 parts carving. The technique is not intarsia but more like relief carving or pierced carving. I begin with patterns of my own design containing objects representing hobbies, professions, families and favorite places or things. The objects are overlapped or touching and also connected by trees/limbs, vines, ribbon, rope, barbed wire or architectural structures. I use the scroll saw to remove background or open spaces. Then I use gouges and knives to carve depth and detail in the remaining patterned wood surface ­ which is still a continuous wood piece without glue joints. I apply coats of oil or polyurethane finish, have the piece professionally framed, and it is ready to hang proudly on somebody's wall.

Materials & Equipment

Bass wood is my most commonly used wood because it is easy to work, reasonably availability and inexpensive. For special or higher-priced pieces, I select harder woods with a lot of grain and character such as mesquite, soft maple, walnut, cherry and some exotics. I plane the hardwood stock to 1/2" to 5/8" thickness, finish sand and cut to blanks such as 8"X10" or 9"X12" to fit standard-size frames. My scroll saw is an Excalibur and the blades I use for the basswood are typically #3 and #5 in various tooth configurations. For carving, I most commonly use three to five small gouges from #3-4mm to #6-8 mm. I also use thin bladed, fine pointed carving knives. Gouges and knives are razor sharp to make clean cuts with minimum effort. I select frames to compliment the theme of the design, and the color of the finished wood. I usually attach a background of suede board of an appropriate color.


I am an electrical engineer by profession and have worked in a variety of industries from defense to pharmaceuticals. My woodworking experience began more than 20 years ago with interest in the scroll saw for creating original ornaments and signs. I became unsatisfied with the flat, two-dimensional look of scroll sawed silhouettes and took up carving in-the-round with gouges and knives. I eventually combined the generally, mutually exclusive crafts of relief carving and scroll saw work. Over the years my experience with this technique has matured and improved to produce decorative wall plaques that are very unique, always challenging and rewarding.

The Process - Step By Step

Wood blank Preparation ­ Select basswood board with about 5/8" thickness. Surface plane or belt sand, then finish sand with 100 then 200 grit. Cut to 8" by 10".

Pattern Attachment ­ photocopy the pattern and transfer to the wood surface with spray adhesive such as 3M Super 77.

(Click Images For A Larger View)

Scroll Sawing
Drill with 1/8-1/4" bit for inside cuts in large open spaces'. Use #58-60 bit for small, tight areas. Scroll saw inside cuts with #5 to #2 blade. Save cut-outs for later use.

Remove Fuzzy Edges on Back Side
When all cutouts are complete, turn the piece face down on a flat surface, insert cut-out pieces like a jigsaw puzzle. Use a finish sander on the back side to remove fuzzy saw-cut edges.

Clamp to Work Surface for Carving
Clamp the work face-up to a raised, flat surface using spring clamps. I use a wood platform mounted on a swivel vise.

Make Stop-Cuts
Make stop-cuts along the lines of the remaining pattern with the tip of a sharp knife.

Remove paper pattern with paint thinner. Carve depth and detail with gouges and knives. For gouges, I mostly use #3, 4mm to #6, 8mm professional gouges from Stubai of Austria. Sharp, fine-point carving knives are needed to make the stop-cuts and apply detail.

Oil Finish
Apply several coats of Watco Danish Oil, Natural or a mixture of equal parts MinWax fast-drying (liquid) polyurethane and paint thinner. Finish may be brushed on but dipping is quicker. Typically three dippings are required to fill edge grain. Drip dry and air blow to remove excess finish. Allow to dry overnight.

Spray Finish
Spray final coat with MinWax fast-drying spray polyurethane.

Frame and Mat

Professional farming and mounting gives the piece a high-quality, finished look. Select a frame molding to complement the color and style of the carved wood piece. Suede board matting behind the piece provides strength to the sometimes delicate carved sections. Other backgrounds that work well include leather, mirror and fabric ­ or the piece can be left open on the back side.

You may email Steve Baldwin at baldwins@ev1.net or visit his web site at ###.com.

Project Gallery